Sketch by Jack Chalker

Hell Ship


By A.G. James

(as told to Graham Fisher)


The Singapore Maru – that was her name….a slow, rusty, dirty, battered tramp of the seven seas; a cargo ship built, according to the brass plate on the bridge, on Scotland’s Clydeside before World World I; bought by the Japs in the thirties, ostensibly for scrap…a Japanese hell-ship.

She was indescribably filthy, the holds alive with rats and cockroaches, but the Japs made us strip in batches of fifty and hose down on the quayside at Singapore before we went aboard.

The once great shipping hub of the Orient presented a scene of neglect and decay which intensified our own depression.  What the Jap bombers had failed to achieve in the way of devastation, the defenders had wrought themselves with the albeit half-hearted scorched-earth policy they put into effect before surrender.  Tall cranes were tilted at crazy angles, their steelwork twisted and crippled.  The huge oil tanks were now blackened, burnt-out hulks.  In the harbour sunken vessels, including the Empress of Asia, floated bottom uppermost.  Everywhere was red rust and an atmosphere of decay.  Lank grass had even begun to force its way between the very concrete slabs.

As we stripped and hosed, grinning natives – Malays in their gaudy sarongs, impassive Chinese, blackbearded Sikhs – gathered round some to jeer at the white man’s humiliation.  We could stand that.  We were only too glad to feel the refreshing splash of cold water on our tortured flesh, to wash away the sweat and to ease the prickly heat that went with it, to ease the cramped and aching limbs, to snatch great gulps of God-given fresh air.

They had brought us from the prison compound in Java packed like sardines in the holds of the Yoshida Maru, another of those dirty, battered, converted cargo ships.  Now, as we stretched our naked bodies on the quayside at Singapore, revelling in the luxury of cold water, we hoped that the worst was over.  Nothing, we thought, could be more nauseating, more soul-destroying, than those cramped, airless holds of the Yoshida Maru.  We had, we thought, sunk as low as human beings could sink.

For seven months since the fall of Singapore and the collapse of the Dutch East Indies, we had been prisoners of the Japs in the compound at Tandjong Priok, the old native village adjoining Batavia where the dock coolies had lived when the Dutch held Java.  Now we were on our way to – where?   We didn’t know yet.  There were just over 1,000 of us, officers and men of the 6th Heavy Ack-Ack Regiment, a regular unit, and of the 35th Light Ack-Ack Regiment, a war-time volunteer unit from Oxford, that city of learning and dreaming spires. 

Those past few days aboard the Yoshida Maru seemed like a bad dream – a bad dream which started with that three-mile shamble under a pitiless sun along the hot, macadam road which led from the prison compound to the docks at Batavia, with the Jap guards crying “Speedo! Speedo! As men staggered and fell out of line, exhausted.  Javanese prostitutes on the balcony of the Jap army brothel laughed and cried “Mac-Mac” – their invitation to intercourse – as we went past.  Grinning natives lined the road in the shadow of the banana and lotus trees.  But for us there was no shadow.  To one of the trees the Japs had nailed a human hand, severed above the wrist, as a grim warning to would-be looters. 

Then came those days aboard the Yoshida Maru, with the whole party of us herded into two holds, each hold split into two by a wooden shelf about three feet up.  Those on the shelf were the lucky ones.  They could at least stand up to ease cramped and aching limbs.  Those below, with only three feet of head-room, could only sit, moving about like animals on all fours.

A bad dream, yes….but, then, we had no knowledge of the days of sheer nightmare that lay ahead on the ghastly Singapore Maru.

A rumour went round that we were bound for Japan itself.  Our hearts fell at that.  In Java, in Singapore, in any of the islands, there was always the hope of being recaptured, of suddenly – by a twist of fate – finding ourselves free men again.  Not so in Japan.  Once there we were prisoners until the war should end. 

Orders were shrieked at us by bespectacled Japanese guards with buck teeth.  Wearily we shuffled into line, dropping our trousers for dysentery and cholera tests, still under the grinning gaze of the natives and a couple of Japanese girls.  We protested, but protests were wasted on the Japs.  We could, perhaps, have stood the humiliation better had there been some point to it.  But there was none.  We were to sail that night - long before the tests could possibly have established anything one way or the other.  That they didn’t is proved by the fact that over 400 of our 1,081 were to die of the most virulent type of dysentery.  Some died aboard ship; others were left aboard to die when we arrived in Japan, while yet others stumbled ashore to survive a few days longer in a Japanese prison camp.

Let me quote you the statistics of that nightmare voyage.  Of the 1,081 prisoners who went aboard only 677 disembarked in Japan.  A total of 63 were buried at sea in the 23 days the voyage lasted.  Another 290 were left aboard, many of them dying, and at least 120 died in prison camps within the next three weeks of the dysentery contracted aboard the Singapore Maru.  Sixteen of the 167 who went with me to the prison camp at Ube died like that.  The proportion of deaths in the parties that went to other camps was very much higher.  Of those who survived the ordeal, most are sick men to this day.  I am just home myself from another month in hospital (January 1946)  - grim heritage of those 23 terrible days aboard the Singapore Maru.

We went aboard at twilight, under the glare of the arc-lamps on the quayside, as the clammy heat of a Singapore night wrapped itself around us, with the Jap guards yelling "Speedo! Speedo!" and "Koure-ja" (Get on there).

But we were in no condition to "Speedo! Speedo!"  Lack of food and the ravages of disease had already weakened us.  Many were already thin, emaciated, hollow-cheeked, deadbeat, stumbling as we walked, shuffling forward foot by foot towards the gangplank in our tattered uniforms, clutching gascapes and old blankets in which were bundled the few pathetic personal belongings left to us - a shuffling crocodile of dishevelled humanity, the flotsam and jetsam that war in the Far East had left in its wake.

But among us there were still, here and there, a man with the guts to fight back.  There was one such man six in line ahead of me.  The Jap guard on the quayside had his back turned, looking up, as he came level with the gangplank.  The one at the top of the gangplank momentarily looking the other way.  In that instant it happened.  The prisoner moved quickly out of line and nudged the Jap guard in the back with his shoulder.

It took guts to do a thing like that.  We had seen enough of Japanese bestiality in Java to know that.  A beating with a bamboo rod, applied as only a Nip knows how to apply it, is something that stays with you for life.

We heard the splash as the Jap hit the water; the yelling as he surfaced again –minus his rifle. Panic ran down the queue.  Any one of us might be picked upon as a victim for reprisals.  Men pushed each other in their haste to get aboard before reprisals started.

Other guards came running up.  The one at the top of the gangplank elbowed his way roughly down to the quayside, jabbing prisoners aside with the butt of his rifle.  "For God's sake get a move on" I muttered to Bill Harper-Smith, the fellow-lieutenant in line ahead of me as a rifle was lowered over the quayside to drag the drenched Jap from the dirty water.

High pitched Japanese voices screeched in angry agitation.  As I went up the gangplank I saw a Jap officer run up and strike the wretched guard a vicious, swinging blow in the face with his half-clenched fist.  It was a favourite trick of the Japs - that swinging blow at the face with a half-clenched fist.  I was to suffer it aboard the Singapore Maru.  Again the angry officer lashed out with his fist.  That was all I saw as I ducked, shielding my head with my arms, pushing hurriedly forward as the guards on deck seized hold of wooden lathes and strips of packing cases to beat us as we went past.

As on the Yoshida Maru, the holds were split into two by a rough wooden shelf a few feet up.  Harper-Smith and I were among the lucky ones.  We got a top shelf towards the middle where we could, at least, get a breath of fresh air from the hatch.  Those herded into the three-feet space below our feet were less fortunate.  There was no room for them to stand up - only to sit, lie or crawl; no fresh air.   Tiny, blue painted bulbs were the only source of light.  We scraped the paint from them, but they still cast only a fitful pool of light in their immediate vicinity.

I crouched under one of the bulbs to write up my diary, the torn, dog-eared, mildewed notebook that had started out as an officer's memorandum book.  It is before me on the table as I write, its faded pages permanently curled from its years of hiding in a cocoa tin covered with the rice-flavouring.

The diary was a source of concern to those among my friends who know of its existence.  Always there was the fear that the Japs would find it during one of their periodic, though desultory, searches of our belongings.  But it was a risk I had to take.  To me, the diary was a source of relief - a way of getting out of my system some of the pent-up emotion which seemed to threaten to rise up and choke me.  I think it did much to preserve my sanity in places like that gloomy, ill-lit hold of the sinister Singapore Maru.

It was hot in the hold - oppressively hot; clammy, fetid with the smell of sweating bodes and the whiff of mosquito cream.  Men lay on the wooden boards, the inevitable cockroaches crawling over them; occasionally rats.  One ran across my face as I lay in the half-darkness.  Here and there, where a group crouched beneath a bulb, greasy playing cards were being thumbed.  Men muttered and swore, grumbled, prayed.  Occasionally they laughed.  But it was hollow, ironical laughter with no humour in it.  Some groaned - a forwarning of the dread epidemic so soon to scythe our ranks.

Wickson, my batman - a slow-speaking Oxfordshire countryman, a greying 48 year old veteran of World War I - groaned and vomited.  I took it to be merely a recurrence of the malaria which so often plagued him.  It wasn't.  It was something much more deadly.....something which was to take him from us in so short a time.  The tragedy of Wickson was the tragedy of so many other men of his age and temperament.  He need never have been out east at all.  As a veteran of World War I, he could have stayed in England when the regiment left.  But he begged to come with us, even re-mustering from gunner to batman in order to do so.

We sailed around dawn the following morning and once at sea our first impressions of the Singapore Maru were not unfavourable.

We were, so far, not so crowded as we had been in the holds of the Yoshida Maru.  The food seemed better.  We were now getting three meals a day of rice and boiled vegetables - cabbage, pumpkin and Chinese radish - and a thin, evil tasting stew, a nauseous concoction in which floated a little dried fish.  There was not water, but weak, lukewarm tea was available.  Except at night, we were allowed on deck in batches to get fresh air, and occasionally on deck we caught glimpses of a party of small, flat-featured Geisha girls - mainly teenagers - returning to Japan after providing entertainment for the troops.  There was even an issue of cigarettes - ten per man - and we begain to feel almost human again.  But it was only a grim jest of fate to seem to ease our lot before delivering the all-time Sunday punch that was to follow.

We were bound for Japan.  We know that for certain now.  The Japanese commander made a neat little speech in very bad English, warning us against trading what few warm clothese we had for the cigarettes of his own men.  Gloomy as the news was in one respect , it was heartening in another.  We might hope to enjoy better health in a colder climate more similar to our own.  On the whole, spirits rose a little.  POW's are often over-optimistic and we - without any real reason - were optimistic then. 

The first death - the first hint of what lay ahead - came after we had been forty hours at sea.  A gunner of the 6th Regiment, 15th Battery - his name was Stewart - was the first victim.  We buried him as sea, rolling his in a tattered blanket, weighted at each end, and sliding him from a plank over the stern.

But that was only the beginning.  In another forty eight hours the epidemic, mainly amoebic dysentery, had scores of men in its grip.  They lay huddled in blankets, greatcoats, gascapes, sweating, weakening, many completely exhausted and unable to move.  The sweat shone on their hollow faces.  The stench in the holds as the epidemic ran riot became foul, rancid, fetid.  It was a cargo of death that the Singapore Maru had aboard as she wallowed through the dark seas towards Japan.

Much as it went against the grain, we had no option but to appeal to the Japs for help.  Only one of those aboard could speak proper English.  This was Moriama, who had charge of the Geisha girls.  Tall for a Jap, he spoke with a strong American accent - the product of twenty-four years in the United States.  He had a ready smile - unusual for a Jap - and this, too, was probably the product of his American environment.

He was the one man aboard who even purported to be sympathetic to our plight, and through him Colonel Eric Scott, who was in charge of the prisoners, appealed to the Japs for medical supplies, food more suitable for desperately sick men - he suggested pap-rice, a sort of Japanese porridge - and for the issue of a separate sugar ration.  Such sugar as the Japs allowed us was always included in that dreadful dried fish stew, a nauseating, sickly-sweet concoction which our weak stomachs could not easily tolerate.  Most of us threw the mess straight overboard - and with it the sugar content which would have given us a little extra strength to stand up to the ravages of disease.  Colonel Scott asked, too, for the very sick to be put ashore at French Indo-China (now Vietnam).

He was wasting his time.  The Japanese commander refused every request.  Blandly, he assured Colonel Scott that he had radioed ahead to Formosa for medical aid to be waiting for us there.  I don't think any of us believed him and subsequent events proved us right.  It was the usual Japanese eyewash.

No drugs were forthcoming, no separate sugar, though later - very much later - the request for pap-rice was finally met.  Our problems did not concern the Japs.  Every request was met with a headshake, the same bland refusal.  In Japanese eyes we were expendable, dishonoured men who had failed to retrieve their honour by committing hari-kiri in defeat.  If anything, the food got steadily worse as the supplies of fresh vegetables aboard were used up.  Cases of beri-beri – caused by vitamin deficiency – scurvy, the inevitable malaria and sheer physical exhaustion added to our problems….and death stalked grimly from stem to stern below the decks of the Singapore Maru

We were thrown back on our own resources.  We set to and cleared No.4 hold, taking there such warm coverings as we could muster, converting it as best we could into some form of sick-bay.  It was the only thing we could do, but it had the inevitable effect of herding those who were not yet sick more closely together and providing the dysentery with a richer breeding ground.

Flight-lieutenant Liddell, an RAF medical officer who was in the party, one of the old-young men who are the product of war – he was around twenty-six, but looked years older – took charge.  He worked like a Trojan, frustrated always by lack of facilities, lack of drugs, lack of food and the hopelessly inadequate sanitary arrangements.  Night and day he was on the go, sponging sweat-beaded faces with the weak tea the Japs dished out, trying in vain to keep the sick warm with such dirty blankets and torn greatcoats as he could scrape together, doing his best to keep down the stench and the filth that went with it as men’s bodies lost control of themselves.

“If only I had the drugs” he would mutter time and again.  But after the first few days there were no drugs.  Liddell started with a little emetin, a handful of aspirins.  But they were soon gone.  Harper-Smith, one of the first to fall victim to the epidemic, had about the last shot of emetin and it was almost certainly this that saved his life.  Those who fell sick later were not so lucky.  If there were any drugs aboard, we didn’t see them.  So the sick tossed and turned, groaned and vomited – and died.

I don’t think Liddell left the improvised sick bay from the moment it came into being except to stagger on deck occasionally to gulp in fresh air.  His face was hollow-cheeked, haggard, and before we reached Japan he, himself, was ill with the disease he fought so gallantly.  He remained aboard, I remember, to go on nursing those who were too weak to struggle ashore.

They were heroes – the men who sweated amidst the stench and horror of No.4 hold.  It was no place for the squeamish; for weak stomachs.  Liddell had the help at first of three Indonesian medical officers.  But two of them got the disease and then he was pretty well on his own.

Volunteers were called for as medical orderlies.  More than enough were forthcoming.  We started with six, increasing the number as the number of sick increased.  Only two had had any sort of medical training at all.  The others did their best, but it was an all-too-poor best.  Theirs was a revolting task, trying to keep that horrible, half-dark hole free of blood and mucus, emptying great barrels of the frightful stuff, with the groans of the dying ringing always in their ears.

Colonel Scott called the officers together.  We, in turn, addressed the men, issuing instructions to try to stem the tide of disaster: don’t touch the handrails; don’t move about with bare feet; on no account put your fingers in your mouths; wrap anything you can get hold of round your stomachs to keep them warm.

I don’t think it helped much.  How could it when men and officers were forced to wash and shave – in weak, lukewarm tea – in the same dixies they ate and drank out of.

The increasing cold as the Singapore Maru ploughed north added to our discomfort.  Then came a north-east monsoon.  For twenty-four hours the ship had to heave to, with the hatches battened down on the grim picture below decks.  It meant, too, delay in reaching Formosa (now Taiwan) – our one hope of medical supplies.  It was a slim hope, but it was the only one we had and we clung to it desperately.

We were off the China coast at the time, and the junior officers, as we lay huddled together in the darkness of the holds, discussed a wild plan to take over the ship.  A plan?  No, it was hardly that.  Rather was it the wild ramblings of men of the brink of despair.  The coastline of China, we knew, was in enemy hands, but there was a vague hope that if we ran the ship aground some of us might get through to link up with friendly troops.  It would have been an every-man-for-himself project with no hope of taking the sick.  The idea was born, discussed, discarded to die of its own accord.  We were, I think, too exhausted, mentally and physically, to turn words into deeds.

Nine men had died by the time we reached Formosa – with those still alive clinging desperately to the hope that they would be taken off there.  No.4 hold by this time was packed with over a hundred very sick men.

Poor old Wickson died as we steamed into the harbour of Tainan.  I was with him almost until the end.  In a way, I felt personal responsibility for his presence there.  Had I been firmer he would never have been with us, but would have stayed behind amid the green fields of England.  Until he drift off into a last coma he was amazingly cheerful, refusing to let go of the slender hold he still retained on life.  But when food came round – that frightful Japanese stew – he was too weak to gulp it down.  As the anchor grated down, Wickson’s soul was on its way to a new and happier anchorage.

(Handwritten note : Gnr Bacon – taken ill in morning. Didn’t want to live – dead by nightfall. “If you cannot face today, there is no tomorrow.”)

Immediately the ship was in harbour, Colonel Scott was pestering the Japanese commander, through the medium of Moriama, for the sick to be taken ashore.

Three more men died while he argued.  Argument got him nowhere.  I don’t think the Japs, at that stage, had any intention of taking anyone ashore.

But Colonel Scott, like the fine soldier he was, refused to acknowledge defeat.  Daringly, he hammered away at the Jap commander and finally, thirty-six hours after we had entered the harbour, he got his way to the extent that a Japanese medical officer was brought aboard.  Short, dapper, bespectacled, he was not really interested.  His examination of the sick was purely perfunctory – a gesture, no more.  Finally, he said that twenty-one could go ashore.

Colonel Scott was aghast.  “Twenty-one!” he exclaimed.  “But that’s useless.  There are over a hundred men here badly in need of proper treatment”.

It was useless.  The Japs shoulder-shrugged their way through all argument.  Twenty-one was the number decided upon – and twenty-one it was going to be.  The faces of those left in No.4 hold after the twenty one had been selected were pitiful to see.  Their last slim hopes were finally dashed.  Most of them knew they would never see their homes again; never even see Japan.  They were doomed to die aboard the Singapore Maru, to be buried in a watery grave.

We were not allowed to bury the dead over the side while we were in harbour, but after a protest from Colonel Scott that bodies would rot if left for long, the Japs agreed to take them ashore for cremation.  The Jap commander warned us though that we should be liable to find the sum of thirty-seven yen in respect of each cremation!  The ashes came back aboard in small wooden boxes.

To add to our troubles, the Japs announced that we should have to make room for five hundred troops returning to Japan.  Carpenters swarmed over the ship, hammering extra shelving into the holds.  Our own men were crowded more thickly into the deeper holds where the fresh air did not penetrate and where the horrible rolling of that hellish old tub, once we were at sea again, was more pronounced.

We sailed on the Sunday morning.  Two more men had died during the night and were buried as soon as we were at sea, the funeral party slipping and slithering as the ship pitched and tossed in heavy weather.  It was a travesty of a funeral service, but thank God we never got to the state where we simply pitched the bodies over the side.  Lieutenant-Colonel “Joe” Hazel, the senior Roman Catholic officer aboard, conducted the service – a break in his voice as he read the funeral prayer.  He was a Somerset man, an inspiring figure, well liked, well respected, with a keen appreciation of the finer things of life.

Scribbled in my secret diary is a fragment of poetry he wrote;

O, dying soldier, what web are you weaving,

Waste with disease of these unfriendly climes?

Is your tired mind th’ remembered things perceiving,

Straining your fading ear for Tom Tower’s chimes?

Straining your eyes to see those dreaming spires

Beyond your cage of oriental trees,

Aching to cool your throbbing temples’ fires

With the caress of Isis’ evening breeze.

Striving to reach across the trackless ether

The wife you left to tell her of your need?

Your failing breath is all you can bequeath her;

The whisper of her name she cannot heed.

(Handwritten note : My regiment, 35th L.A.A. Regt., R.A. was formed at Oxford. Joe Hazel, a solicitor from Somerset, though not in our regt. – he was in 6th H.A.A. Regt., R.A., obviously had Oxford men very much in mind when he wrote this poem.)

Our one hope now, as more and more men fell sick, as more and more died, lay in reaching Japan itself.  It seemed – fantastically – almost a promised land.  To such depths can men sink in despair.  To us, nothing mattered but to get off the Singapore Maru, away from the all-pervading stench of death.  We looked at the dying and thought: How long can any of us hold out?

But even the hope of reaching Japan seemed doomed to disappointment.   We had been at sea again only nine hours when there was a typhoon warning and the ship ran for shelter.  We anchored in a small bay somewhere along the west coast of Formosa, where a small offshore island – barren, desolate – provided shelter of sorts from the raging elements.  We stayed that way for seventy-two hours, battened down under hatches, while the wind howled its fury and the ship pitched and tossed in the heavy seas – and seven more men died.

Disease was spreading rapidly now, gaining ground as our weakness grew.  Our improvised sick bay was crowded.  Further argument on the part of Colonel Scott, who never gave up trying, saw the Japs issue two bananas and a third of an orange to each man from the stores taken aboard at Formosa – an infinitesimal luxury for which we were forced to pay out of such funds as remained at our disposal.

We were not allowed to bury the bodies while the typhoon raged for fear that they would be washed ashore on Formosa.  But we dragged them out of the holds and on to the heaving deck, where they lay on the hatch-covers in shrouds fashioned from rice-straw from the galley – the wrappings in which the vegetables had been brought aboard.  Blankets and greatcoats could no longer be spared for this grisly purpose.  They were too precious to the living.

Again Colonel Scott interviewed the Jap commander, insisting that either we push on despite the typhoon or that we put back to Formosa.  Strangely enough, he got his way.  The Japs, I think, were frightened themselves of the disease which ran riot below decks.  Certainly the Jap officers never came near us and the guards only if it was unavoidable.

The Singapore Maru got up steam again, and, as darkness fell, with the ship rolling heavily, we buried the dead.  It was an eerie, gruesome experience, the full moon on one side, the dying streamers of sunset on the other.  The Japs, with a fine show of irony, sent half-a-dozen officers to attend the funerals.  They lined up on one side of the ship, impassive, dapper in their navy-blue and olive-brown uniforms, their jackboots highly polished, swords dangling at their sides.  Opposite them, hate in their eyes, were the British, myself included, in their tattered uniforms and with their hollow emaciated faces.

Seven times the bearers picked up the heavy hatch-planks on which the bodies lay.  Seven times we raised our hands in a last salute to the dead as the bundle of rice-straw slid down the hatch plank.  Seven times came the dull splash as the body entered the water.  So seven men from the English midlands went to their last resting place in the chill turbulent waters – and we dispersed from that grim gathering to be greeted by news of two more deaths.

So the grisly total continued to mount – 23 deaths….26…28.  As more and more men fell victims to disease it became necessary to turn yet another hold into an improvised sick bay, with the resulting overcrowding among those who were not yet sick.

Submarine scares added to our worries.  The Jap guards would rush in – about the only time they came near us – with orders to douse all lights.  It was a futile precaution as there were no portholes in the holds through which even the faint glimmer of those tiny bulbs might have been seen.  But douse them we must and lie in the darkness, pondering our chances it the ship should be torpedoed.  The Singapore Maru, we know, carried no insignia to suggest to any prowling submarine that there were prisoners-of-war aboard.

The difficulty now was to persuade those who fell sick to go to the improvised sick bays.  In men’s minds those two holds had become places of death from which there was no coming out alive once you were carried in.  If they must die, they preferred to do so among their friends rather than in those ghastly, stinking places in which so many men had already died.

Harper-Smith, now on his feet again though but a shadow of his former self; the adjutant, Captain Dudley Chenery(years later to be my best man), and myself did our best to cheer the sick.  Each day – sometimes twice a day – we would force ourselves to enter the sick-bays, to endure their horrifying stench while we squatted beside the dying and talked to them of happier times…of cricket, of fox-hunting, of England.  We wangled what extra luxuries we could from the Jap guards to comfort the dying – a little beef-extract, some cigarettes – doing our best to ease their last few hours.

Those of us still unscathed tried to blunt the edge of our susceptibilities by playing bridge with a pack of much-thumbed, greasy cards; by passing round a battered copy of “Good Days” – a copy from which the stitching and cover had gone and the pages hung like limp, dirty rags.  I can never see a copy of that fine book by Neville Cardus without my mind going back to how I read it aboard the Singapore Maru, crouching beneath one of those feeble bulbs, my thoughts picturing a vision of white-clad figures on a green field and the sound of bat meeting ball.

I see that I wrote in my diary then: “Cricket days will come again and I am determined to be there to see them.”

Looking back, it sounds perhaps melodramatic, but no man who was not aboard that ghastly ship can realize how we felt.  With so many men dying – often because they now no longer had the will to live – it became more and more necessary to have something to cling to, something to stop the faint spiritual spark of hope from going out altogether.

At this stage my secret diary becomes little more than a catalogue of death…of burials at sea…name after name of men who succumbed to the scourge below decks…forty-three bodies delivered to the sea, including Lance-bombardier Meakin, a cheerful little cock-sparrow of a man who had been among the first to volunteer for work in those terrible sick-bays.  He was, I remember, always a great comfort to the sick, sparing himself nothing until he, himself, became one of those weak, huddled, groaning forms wrapped in dirty blankets.  If ever a man deserved to live, it was Meakin.  He was in my own battery, and both Chenery and myself did our best to rally him.  It was useless.  His indomitable spirit was willing enough, but his body, undermined by privation, lack of food and overwork, could not go on.

Men died like flies.  Some lay dead for hours, huddled in the dark corners of the holds, before anyone noticed.  The total jumped to fifty-five.        

Then the M.O., Liddell himself, contracted the disease.  It was inevitable, I suppose, working night and day as he did in those airless, stinking holds.  But still he insisted on struggling to his feet to look after others – a gaunt, grey-faced ghost of a man who would not give in.  There were times though when he had to; when the disease wore him down and brought him very near collapse.

As a medical man he knew he needed food to build up his resistance if he was to keep going.  There was only one way of getting it.  He brought from his pocket the silver cigarette case which had been a wedding gift from his wife.  He passed it to Chenery.

“See what you can get the Japs to trade for that, old boy”. 

When we left him Chenery stood for a moment balancing the case on the palm of his hand.  It was a lovely piece of work, worth, Liddell had told us once, around 14.

“Damned if I’m going to let some measly bastard of a Jap have it”, muttered Chenery.

He didn’t either.  Instead, he traded some of his own precious, all too few articles of warm clothing for a tin of beans, a tin of meat and vegetable stew and some meat extract – little enough, but enough to turn the tide in Liddell’s favour.

He got the food inside him.  “Pity about the case”, he said, “but I think the wife would understand.”

Then Chenery produced the case.  Liddell looked at it; looked at Chenery.  He didn’t say anything.  He couldn’t.  His lips were trembling and if he had spoken he would have given way.

The sudden appearance of unknown luxuries in those ghastly holds surprised those of us not in the know.  Tins of pineapple were handed round, bully beef, meat extract, tinned butter, cigarettes.  Enquiries revealed that the returning warriors of the Son of Heaven had prised loose a couple of boards in the side of one of the store-rooms and were helping themselves at night, trading what they looted for the few personal possessions the sick prisoners had left – rings, watches, cigarette cases, lighters.

It was on November 21 that we began to pass the long chain of mountainous islands that heralded the approach of Japan.  Thirty six hours later we arrived off the port of Moji and anchored in the roads outside.  Immediately Colonel Scott demanded that the sick should be sent ashore.

Fifty-eight men had died and over four hundred lay groaning in those terrible sick bays.  I had the disease by now, though I could still get about.  I doubt if there was a man aboard who did not have it.  But for twenty-four hours the Singapore Maru stayed out in the roads while men continued to die.  A Jap quarantine officer came aboard, but flatly refused to enter the sick bays and see conditions for himself.  Another twenty-four hours went by and then a party of Japanese medical officers came aboard.  But not to do anything for the sick.  Merely to test the whole lot of us for dysentery!  What grim irony.  I wonder what they thought of the results.

That evening the returning troops disembarked.  Only a handful of guards remained on board.  The gangplank was down, unguarded.  It didn’t matter.  A man might slip ashore, but he wouldn’t get far.  White features and round eyes would stand out a mile in this land of little yellow men.  The Singapore Maru settled down for the night. 

It was around midnight when an indescribable din woke me from a troubled sleep.  It seemed as though all hell was let loose.  Men laughing, shouting, fighting.  I went on deck.  A couple of prisoners passed me, swaying, singing,

Bottles clutched tightly in their hands.  In the other holds men were reeling about drunk; tinned fruit, cigarettes, bottles of whisky and saki were being passed from hand to hand.  Tinned foods, lumped into gas-capes, were being humped down to the sick.  Men starved for so long, ate ravenously, like animals, wolfing whatever they could grab, opening tins of peaches by the simple expedient of smashing them against the projecting ends of iron stanchions.  The noise was incredible and must have been clearly heard on the dockside.

The prisoners, finding themselves virtually unguarded, had done what the Japanese troops had done before them – broken into the storehouse.  It was like a football scrimmage round the narrow two-plank opening.  Men were fighting to get in; then fighting their way out again, their loot held high above their heads.

The Japanese guards – a corporal and seven men – pretended to sleep through it all.  Just as well they did.  The prisoners, with drink inside them, were in a mood that night to have torn them limb from limb had they attempted to interfere.

The riot, mutiny – call it what you like – went on most of the night.  It was dawn before things began to quieten down.  Then the Jap guards bestireed themselves and officially “discovered” what had been going on.

Tense, expectant, we waited for the inevitable.  It came.  Feet thudded on the gangplank as a contingent of troops came aboard at the double.  Down into the holds they came, lashing around them with staves, searching for loot.  Two of them grabbed a middle-aged captain -  a little tubby man – and beat him up methodically for several minutes while the rest shrieked and screeched, lashing around them with their staves and kicking our few pitiful belongings all over the place.  In dark corners of the hold men hurriedly broke down looted cigarettes and crammed the fragments into water bottles. 

An order came for the officers (Handwritten note inserted here : in charge of sections. Originally 1 major, 1 captain and 1 lieutenant. My major had died and Capt G (surname deliberately withheld) pretended he was ill so I went)  to report amidships.  We were lined up in front of the bridge – a part of the ship previously barred to prisoners – and forced to bow as four Japanese officers, flanked by guards with fixed bayonets, came on the scene.

One of them began to rave at us in fair English with a strong American accent, strutting up and down, his jackboots thudding on the deck, waving a naked sword in his hand as though he was going to sever our heads from our bodies at any moment.

“Are you civilized or savage? All will be shot”.

He went on saying it over and over again like a cracked gramophone record.

Colonel Scott stood up to the tirade unflinchingly.  When he could get a word in, he said, calmly: “Your own men have been raiding the store for nights past.  Are they civilized or savage?”

The Jap officer went on ranting, waving his sword within an inch or so of our faces.  The rest of us began to mutter among ourselves.  Colonel Scott shook his head warningly.

“Keep quiet,” he mumbled out of the side of his mouth.  “They’re only looking for a scapegoat.”

Suddenly I remember a packet of looted cigarettes in my hip pocket.  I licked my lips.  If they decided to search us there was a good chance that I would be the scapegoat.  I had no fancy for a beating with a bamboo rod or the flat of a sword. 

The Jap officer ranted and raved for a full twenty minutes while we stood sullen and silent.  Then, suddenly, the Japs withdrew into a cabin.

As diffidently as I could, I strolled to the side of the ship and stood there looking over the rail.  When I strolled back to join the others again the give away packet in which the looted cigarettes had been was in the water.  The cigarettes themselves were too precious to waste.  They were still in my pocket, and Harper-Smith and I chain smoked our way through them as we waited.

The Jap officers emerged again and again we forced to bow to them.  Refusal would have meant a beating.  Then came a demand for the names of the men who had taken part in the looting.

“Impossible,” snorted Colonel Scott.  “No one knows who they were.”  More sword waving.  “No argument.  No argument,” shrilled the Japanese officer.  “Names will be produced.”

We were sent back to the holds to compile the list.  Then began a grim game of playing for time.  We knew we were due to disembark that day.  If only we would stall long enough, we reasoned, orders to move on might arrive before matters got worse.  But every few minutes a Jap messenger would appear to ask if the list was ready.

“Not yet. Not yet,” we kept saying.  It couldn’t go on indefinitely, of course, and eventually we were forced to produce a list of 118 names – every one fictitious.

“We’ll see what they make of that little lot,” said Colonel Scott. 

We didn’t have to wait long.  The list came back to us.  It was too long.  Only the names of the ringleaders were required.

Back went a message from Colonel Scott.  Impossible to comply.  Then up the gangplank came storming a detachment of red-capped Kempei-tai, the dreaded Japanese military police.  They swarmed into the holds, seizing men, searching them, bullying, chivvying.  But the men had their tale worked out.  Of everything that was found on them they said simply: “Changey-changey….Me-Nippon.”

The searching and chivvying was still going on when orders came to disembark.  Immediately, as Colonel Scott had foreseen, the Japs lost all interest in the questions of the looted store-room. 

We lined up, shouldering our few belongings; shuffled on deck.  Every man who could possibly walk, move, drag himself along, came with us rather than stay aboard that ship of death.  But, even so, 290 had to be left behind, sick, weak, emaciated, dying.

We shambled down the gangplank, shivering in the bitter north-east wind, our thin tropical drill shorts small protection against the cold of a Japanese winter.  But there wasn’t a man among us who wasn’t overjoyed to get off that ghastly ship.

Shivering, we stood on the quayside while Jap customs officials went through the farce of examining our few pitiful belongings for contraband.  Shivering, we waited for the barges which were to take us through the Inland Sea to the prison camps.

As we waited, Major Ian Graham, of the Seaforth Highlanders, came running down the gangplank, the ribbons of his Glengarry streaming behind him.

“Anyone know No. 192?” he called out.  “The poor devil’s just committed suicide.”

No.192 – I won’t give his name – had struggled up from the sick bay to the deck in the hope of coming with us.  But he was too weak to make it.  Left behind, he had crawled to the side of the ship and allowed himself to fall over the rail into the cold waters.  To him, death was preferable to remaining on board.  The Singapore Maru was that sort of ship.


Handwritten notes on the last page :


Lt.Col.E.K.Scott – I knew him because he was the Senior British Officer in my sub-camp of the large POW compound (over 3,000) at Tandjong Priok near Batavia, later Jkarta, Java. He had some knowledge of Orientals having been Dorman Long’s (steel) Far-Eastern representative before the war. A great man.


Written in pencil : Shown to Chenery, Jack Gould, Bert Hughes and Bill Harper-Smith – the last two now dead. AGJ 23.7.80.


17/July/2002 Only Jack Gould of 14th Bty is still alive.


Dudley Chenery, best man at my wedding in March 1947, died in Feb 1992 at Colchester where I had visited him with my wife on a number of occasions. In the 89th Battery (35th L.A.A. Regt., R.A.). He was ‘A’ Troop Commander and I and Bill Harper-Smith were respectively ‘B’ and ‘C’ troop commanders. Bill died, I would think, in the early eighties.



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[George James] [Hell Ship] [Prologue]



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